In the realm of presidential politics, the rhetorical distance between maverickhood and flakiness can be vanishingly small—as Chuck Hagel learned, or should have learned, a week ago in Omaha, Nebraska. Surrounded by a roomful of national reporters who’d flown halfway across the country, at Hagel’s behest, to learn if he would enter the fray, the Republican senator mounted the podium and, in the space of 552 words, transformed himself from a brave iconoclast into a flagrant prick tease. “I will make a decision on my political future later in the year,” Hagel said. “I believe there will still be political options open to me at a later date.”
The reaction in the political world to Hagel’s non-announcement announcement was a mixture of derision and disappointment. In the four years that have now elapsed since the start of the war in Iraq, Hagel has consistently and fiercely criticized George W. Bush and his administration not just for their execution of the conflict but for the theory they employed to justify it. He has opposed the “surge” and more or less called the president a liar. He has assailed his congressional colleagues for abdicating their responsibility to check the White House’s power. Indeed, before his befuddling performance last week, Hagel had emerged in the eyes of many as the last sane Republican.
But within the GOP itself, and especially among the cadres laboring on behalf of the other Republican presidential hopefuls, the immediate response to Hagel’s deferral had a rather different tenor. Summing up the views emanating from the camps of the party’s trio of top-tier runners—Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—a senior strategist heaved a sigh and said, “It means he’s out, and thank Christ for that.”
What lies behind this sense of relief isn’t fear that a Hagel candidacy would prove a juggernaut. (Few GOP-primary voters today even know who Hagel is, let alone what he stands for.) It’s the fear of what a real, full-throated debate on Iraq would do to the dynamics of the race for the Republican nomination—and, in particular, to the campaigns of the Big Three, all of whom have adamantly thrown themselves behind Bush’s policy. That Giuliani, McCain, and Romney would prefer to discuss Iraq as little as possible, clinging to their pro-war postures and praying for a miracle in Baghdad, is understandable, at least in the short term. But when it comes to their longer-range dreams of occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it may also be suicidal.
Even among some longtime Bush loyalists, the reflexive fealty of the Republican wannabes to the president on Iraq seems bizarre on its face. “The American people have decided what they think about the war and are ready to look to the next stage,” Matthew Dowd, Bush’s chief campaign strategist in 2004, said recently. “What I don’t understand is why the Big Three GOP candidates have all chosen to follow the president’s approach rather than offer up their own alternative.”
For Giuliani and Romney, the pivotal moment arrived in January, when Bush announced the surge. Though both had been broadly supportive of the administration on the war, here they were presented a ripe opportunity to create a degree of distance between themselves and Bush’s increasingly bloody-minded approach. But instead, after allegedly consulting a bevy of military experts, both chose to double down. Meanwhile, for McCain, the decision was at once more straightforward and more wrenching. Having long argued that the problem with Bush’s conduct of the war was the deployment of too few troops, it would have seemed ludicrous for him to oppose the surge—even if he knew that 20,000 more soldiers in 2007 was way too little and much too late.
The calculations underlying all this, of course, revolve around the character and views of the GOP-primary electorate. According to the most recent New York Times/CBS poll, a whopping 75 percent of Republican voters still approve of Bush’s job performance and 61 percent support his handling of Iraq.
Thus have Giuliani and Romney, a pair of candidates without an iota of foreign-policy or national-security experience between them, determined that the safest course is to fasten themselves to the president and hold on for dear life. And thus have McCain and his advisers gamely tried to make lemonade from the lemons served up by the Bush administration. “Even though voters may disagree with McCain on Iraq, I think they see him as a credible voice of authority on the issue,” says Mark McKinnon, formerly Bush’s media guru and currently a McCain adviser. “Even people that disagree with him will respect him for taking a position that he believes in and where he obviously isn’t doing it for political reasons—I mean, obviously!”